By Sydney M. Williams
Overwhelmingly, voters in Turkey denied President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s bid to turn what is largely a ceremonial office into an executive presidency with enhanced powers. According to the New York Times, voter turnout topped 86%, a high level of participation in any election. Mr. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) entered the election with 327 seats in the 550-seat Parliament. It emerged with 258 seats.
The other three parties are the secularist Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), inheritors of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who founded modern Turkey in 1923; the rightwing National Movement Party (MHP) and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which includes a pro-Kurdish coalition. It was the performance of the latter, taking 13% of the vote – above the 10% threshold required to gain seats in parliament – which stunned Erdoğan watchers. Mr. Erdoğan had called for an election, expecting to pick up enough seats so he could then call for a referendum on the Turkish Constitution. The intent was to reduce the influence of parliament and enhance the power of the President. He lost, but he cannot be counted out.
On Tuesday, in a procedural move, Mr. Erdoğan accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, but asked him to stay on until a new government is formed. Expectations are that the AKP will try to join forces with the MHP; though the latter’s willingness to be wooed seems in doubt. New members of parliament will be sworn in on June 25th. They will then have 45 days to form a coalition government. Should that fail, Mr. Erdoğan will call another election.
What happens in Turkey is relevant to America. Its location is pivotal. It spans Europe and Asia. The Country comprises a fist sticking west from the Middle East, with the Black Sea to its north, the Aegean to the west and the Mediterranean to its south. Its thumb, pointing north and breached by the Bosporus, extends into Europe, where it abuts Greece, Bulgaria and Georgia. To the east, it borders Armenia, with whom they have a difficult history, and Azerbaijan. Their Middle Eastern neighbors are Iran, Iraq and Syria. Syria’s repressive Assad regime and the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria have dumped about two million refugees into Turkey’s southern border towns – a meaningful cost to the country’s 75 million people.
It was Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism and comparisons to Vladimir Putin that galvanized the Kurds and other dissidents. The two men are different: Erdoğan is an active Sunni Islamist, while Putin, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, is truly a secularist. Two of Putin’s Mid East allies, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, are seen as enemies by Mr. Erdoğan. In the Ukraine, Erdoğan supports the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic people. The two leaders, however, have reached rapprochement regarding their differences.
These men are cast from the same mold. Both grew up relatively poor and were good high school athletes. Power is their aphrodisiac. Putin has been in office for fifteen years, Erdoğan for eleven. Both are demagogic and authoritarian. Both are anti-women and anti-gay. Both would like to return their countries to their empirical pasts – the Russian and Ottoman Empires respectively. Two years after Putin crushed protestors in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, Erdoğan did the same in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Both men built palaces fit for a Tsar and a Sultan: Putin’s enormous $1 billion palace sits on 175 acres on the Black Sea; Erdoğan’s 1100 room palace in Ankara cost a reputed $615 million. Both thrive on personal control. Neither is interested in reform, human rights or democracy.
Change of this magnitude, however, brings instability. A headline in Wednesday’s Financial Times read: “Turkey impasse Underlines Economic Doubts.” Uncertainty is always a challenge for investors. And Sunday’s vote was destabilizing. On Monday the Turkish stock market fell 8% and the Lira declined 5%. Turkey’s economy was already suffering. GDP in 2014 grew at a lackluster 2.9%, and weakness persisted in this year’s first quarter. Unemployment is 11%, a five-year high, with consumer confidence at a six-year low. Turkey’s central bank had been pressured by Mr. Erdoğan to keep interest rates low. (He had accused the bank of “treason” when they threatened to raise rates.) External investment is likely to be sidelined until investors have a better sense as to what direction the government is headed. There are those in the West who would prefer the stability of an authoritarian Mr. Erdoğan to the absence of a clear mandate.
But, in my opinion, they are wrong. We in the West take democracy for granted. We forget or are ignorant of its human costs. Emma Lazarus, in words enshrined on the Statue of Liberty, wrote of people “yearning to breathe free.” The desire for liberty, justice, human dignity, respect for others and the rule of law are universal. Those desires are innate; they are not limited by culture, race, religion or place. In his 2002 State of the Union address, George Bush spoke of that sense: “All fathers and mothers, in all societies, want their children to be educated and live free from poverty and violence. No people on earth yearn to be oppressed, or aspire to servitude, or eagerly await the midnight knock of the secret police.” In the comfort of our homes and in our assumption that freedom is a given, we have lost our understanding of the price liberty exacts.
In the short term, the quest for freedom, as was indicated in Turkey’s electoral results, will prove unsettling. But we should not let short term economic dislocations derail the move toward democracy, or influence our response. Freedom needs nurturing and that should be a role America plays – in this case, supporting the Kurdish minority, standing with those who were unafraid of a man intent on stomping out their liberty.
Despotism creeps up on little cat feet. No country is immune, including our own. Institutions can inhibit the rise of a despot, but they cannot always stop him. It is only the people that can. Their arsenal is the ballot box. Men like Erdoğan (and Putin) begin with the legitimacy of elections. They appeal to emotions, not intellect. They make promises of what government can provide, not requests for forbearance or sacrifice on the part of the people.
That Turkey repudiated a would-be dictator should be celebrated. But caution is necessary, lest opportunity slips away. A good friend, an American who is Turkish by heritage and who spent his early childhood there and who travels back every year, wrote me two days ago: “I think what the Turkish opposition needs to avoid at all costs is the AKP running a minority government, or an immediate new election. Time is needed to dissipate Erdoğan’s power.” Good advice.
The Opinions expressed above are mine alone, and do not represent those of the firm Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Co., Inc., or of any of its partners or employees.